Monday, July 31
There's a good article in today on a law suit alleging that a university didn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act because a professor wouldn't provide accommodations for a student with a disability. I've been thinking of posting about my own situation for a while now; I would love to hear your reactions.
I've got serious problems with depression. I've been on medications and in treatment for it for 7 years now. Because of family history, and how depression progresses as a disease, it's very likely that I will have episodes of depression periodically for the rest of my life. This would be true whether or not I was in academia.
While I was still taking courses, I had an extremely hard time getting my big papers done by the deadlines at the end of each quarter. The quarter system is brutal to everyone, but I would get paralyzed by anxiety sometime around the 9th week, and not be able to make progress on the big papers. Small papers or short assignments, no problem. But research papers were problematic for me. I would do WAY too much reading of the relevant (and irrelevant literature), outline a paper that was 5 times too long, and then panic because there was no way that I could finish the project I had started. Classic perfectionist, overachiever problems. But because of the depression this became a life-threatening situation when anxiety and panic led to suicidal thoughts and withdrawal. Each quarter I would sink into despair, and become totally incapacitated. I would end up sending overly apologetic emails to professors saying that I couldn't complete their papers, and could I please have an extension or an incomplete. Eventually, I learned to email the professors at the beginning or middle of the quarter and give them a heads-up that this was likely to happen, and try to negotiate something in advance. I would tell them I'm registered with the Disability Center, and have documentation of my problems.
I've received a wide variety of responses from professors. A few have been supportive and nonjudgmental. Many say that they don't ever give extensions or incompletes, as a matter of fairness to other students. Others say they won't give it to me for my own good, because they've seen too many grad students' careers get sidetracked by an incomplete. I feel like shaking these professors and telling them the thoughts that go through my head every time I think about their paper: literally, whenever the thought of the class or paper would come into my head, I would think "I want to kill myself" or "I want to die". If they knew that, would they still act is if I was just lazy and unmotivated? Do they think that I'm not trying?
I sometimes think that I get weird reactions from professors because up until that point in the quarter I was usually a star student in the course, achieving well beyond expectations*. That's one of the reasons I stay in academia, even though I have mental health problems. I am actually very talented at what I do, when I'm able to get it done. It's just that I can't get it done on other peoples' schedules some of the time.
I know that academia is chock full of people with depression, especially during the phd years. So why aren't there better systems in place to deal with students like me? How come the professors are allowed to unilaterally decide that I don't need an accommodation? But also, should I really be trying to be an academic if I've got so much anxiety around deadlines? Furthermore, what does "fairness" mean when some of us are fighting mental and physical illnesses (or both at the same time) just to get to the starting line? If the battle is that steeply uphill, should we even be fighting it?

* I don't mean to be egotistical, but this is what they tell me.


fraud, in denim said...

The disability resource center at my grad school was very specific about the kind of accomodations that different people were eligible for and there was no wiggle room for professors to choose to ignore or alter those accomodations. Does your letter say anything specific about what types of issues you might have in your classes? Could you get it added?

thistle said...

Fraud: My letter says something pretty vague about flexibility with assignments. When I met with the resource center, the person seemed uncertain about what kind of accommodations someone in my situation could ask for; she said that she dealt more with undergrads and exams (extra time, etc.). I wonder if I could go back and ask for the letter to be more specific. Thanks for the good suggestion.

Anonymous said...

I admire you for persevering as you have, it must be frustrating to fight the same battles with teachers (and yourself) each semester. I have no idea how it was handled at my undergrad uni, I know one friend was given an extension on his undergrad thesis due to his depression, but I don't think it was ever talked about openly.

Looking back, I think I've suffered from (relatively minor) anxiety and depression most of my life --- bad enough to make my life miserable a lot of the time, but up until now it hasn't affected my work so badly that I couldn't ignore it. Now, two years into grad school, its got to the point that I can't ignore it any more. I'm seriously considering dropping out. In any case I'm going to see a counsellor this week to talk about it for the first time. Wish me luck.

thistle said...

anonymous 6:54: I'm sorry to hear of your troubles. I think that the particular stresses and lack of structure in grad school accentuate depression in a lot of people who had been coping ok with it before.

Best of luck with the counselor! I hope it helps.

Anonymous said...

I think the fairness thing is linked to (or can be corrected by) the specificity thing. I would never invoke fairness to a student who had paperwork, but in other cases, I do, and what it means is that if I have one student in my offfice demanding an extension and three more who have mysteriously disappeared, I want to reach all four students, but I don't know how. The university wants me to fail the other three. I get to decide about the one in my office. Well guess what? I think the one with the most serious case of depression is probably not in my office. That's what *I* mean by fairness.

So, thistle, if you're still listening, I'm wondering how you learned to do this:
Eventually, I learned to email the professors at the beginning or middle of the quarter and give them a heads-up

I'd like to teach that skill, and I'd like to know how to reach the depressed student who disapeared without reinforcing the student (another one of the three) who just decided not to write the paper because he thought he'd rather go to the beach.

thistle said...

anon 9:06: Mostly I finally realized that the probability of having a depressive episode and the negative fallout of not telling the professors ahead of time outweighed the potential reputation costs of telling them that I had depression. In other words, it made more sense to take a risk that someone would think less of me because of depression than to take the risk that I would end up in the hole without having informed the professors first.

I think the warning ahead-of-time thing works so well because then if you need some extra time, it doesn't sound like you are making excuses. If you just leave the faculty in the dark until a crisis hits, they can't know whether you are sick or at the beach.

Another thing that helps me is having an awesome advisor who I know would go to bat for me if I really needed her to.

In terms of how to teach students to be more up-front about these things, I wonder if it wouldn't be worth it just to say something at the beginning of the term like 'if you have disability/health issues that might be a problem, make sure you show me documentation from the disability resource center so that I know what kind of accomodation you need.' I wonder if that helps? Or maybe just telling students directly that THE ABSOLUTE WORST THING they can do is dissappear, because then you do have to assume they are at the beach.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's that I don't really know what real depression is like, but I imagine that if I were swimming in it, I'd be unable to face the people I had let down, so I worry that dissappearing is just part of it, but I don't know.

I think I will put in a plug for the learning needs center on the first day of class, though.

Thanks for your post, Thistle, and congratulations for figuring it out yourself!

Clear said...

Thistle: It's great that you have these different things in place.

thistle said...

On the dissappearing, for what it's worth: my current therapist and I spend a lot of time talking through strategies for facing the people and things I'm dreading (you're absolutely right that facing the people you've let down is uber-hard). I think coaching through stopping the hiding is the most important thing I've ever gotten out of therapy.

Anonymous said...

i'm glad to have found your blog, and especially this post. i also have a similar situation, but had the wonderful luck of being at an undergrad inst where disability services were good. i still encountered one prof who invoked the whole fairness crap, and at the time, i felt like my world was ending, she would fail me, etc. it turned out ok, thanks to a wonderful dean, but one of the things that once i got documented the disability office said to do was to email each professor at the beginning of the term and meet with them to let them know about my disability. i too would be "star student" until crisis time -- "but you haven't missed a single class yet, surely you'll be fine" -- but most everyone was great. my thesis advisors along the way have all known about it, and things have been late, but it's been fine. i think the important thing was preparing them from the first day of class. also great: syllabi that discuss how ppl with disabilities should let their profs know, including those with invisibile disabilities.
thanks for writing about your experience

Sienna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Disability center on the syllabus. Good call!

anon 9:16/2:27

Anonymous said...

Coming late to this party, such as it is. But anyway, I've been realizing that something peculiar has happened to me.

I used to be depressive, not catastrophically but certainly uncomfortably so. Then it turned out that the depression had physical causes and voila, I was cured. Problem being, it seems that I was a better academic as a somewhat depressive person. As a happy person, I'm much more interested in people than I used to be, more interested in having fun and doing other things. I have more available sources of validation than being smart. As a result, I'm finding it much more difficult to get my work done than I did when I was miserable most of the time.

Chartreuse Circe said...

Hi, all. Coming in late, as usual, but I've been gone (not at the beach).

Thistle, I'm really impressed with the way you've learned to deal with the depression, particularly facing the exposure involved in providing a heads up!

Anyway, I wanted to comment on this from both sides. I've been depressed for a long time, but also didn't recognize it until after graduate school. Then, I mostly "worked through" it and survived on flashes of brilliance and manic motivation, believing that the timing would work out (and it usually did).

I certainly did resent other students who got special treatment, for whatever reason. Some of those, to my eyes, appeared to be playing up things they, also, should "work trhough," and others seemed to me to lack the skills for graduate school -- because, you know, we never claim that it ought to be made easier for dumb people or something, or that medical school should be, etc.

Now that I'm on the other side of the aisle, though, it's a little different. I am a little more lenient, although I absolutely expect (graduate students) to tell me immediately about a problem (and I don't require documentation, unless it's abused), and I cut almost no slack if everything comes up a the last second. I tend to avoid this by meeting frequently with the students -- and because I went through some of the undocumented stuff, I am a bit more astute about catching it than I was. Undergrads are a different kettle of fish, and there are, I believe, some problems with overdiagnosis.

The really interesting thing -- that the last anon. alludes to -- is how many academics are, in fact, depressive (and who commit suicide). I was (am) terrified of anti-depressants because I thought they would make me dumber. The ones I started on did, and it scared me too much to send the time tuning (I had proposals to write). So I do a lot of therapy and a lot of hoping. I wonder how many people take the gamble.

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